Bangladeshi farmers grow “safe” vegetables

Better health, cost saving and environmental protection prompt new practices

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Mst. Jesmin Begum (27) harvests pesticide-free pointed gourd on her farm which is part of a project initiative for environment-friendly agriculture implemented by PUP, funded by MCC. Bogura, Bangladesh.

As Bangladeshi farmers carry baskets of eggplant, leafy red amaranth, cucumbers and squash of all shapes and sizes from their fields to be packaged at a local vegetable processing center, they also bring the personal satisfaction of providing healthy, pesticide-free food to their customers.

These farmers in Bogura District, northwestern Bangladesh, have chosen to learn to farm with natural pest control instead of synthetic pesticides. They have seen the negative effects of long-term use, abuse and overuse of pesticides on the health of farmers, consumers and the environment.

“We like to be healthy,” says farmer Kabir Hossain, who brought olives and ribbed gourds to the center on a Tuesday morning last October. “We would like to save our environment.”

Md. Kabir Hossain (31) is collecting pesticide-free olives from his house lot gardens, which will be sold at freestanding displays in Bogura stores, known as super shops.

Too many farmers are harming the environment with pesticides that pollute the soil, the water and the air, Hossain says.

In addition, farmers in the area, especially those who wear no protective gear when spraying pesticides, report eye irritation and burning, respiratory concerns, stomach acidity and renal problems. Customers too can be affected by food that contains too much pesticides, including vegetables that are sprayed on the same day they are sold at market.

Overuse of pesticides happens because farmers operate on such a thin profit margin that they can’t afford to lose any crops to pests, says Jahangir Alam, MCC program officer. In addition, he says about half the farmers can’t read application instructions. They and others rely on the explanations of pesticides retailers, who benefit financially from its overuse.

A model farm, which is a technology hub. Farmers come here to get training on various methods of cultivation. Bogura, Bangladesh.

Hossain is one of 700 farmers who are growing pesticide-free or “safe food,” as it is commonly called. They are using new farming techniques that they learned from MCC’s development partners Grameen Unnayan Prokalpo (GUP) or Pollee Unnayon Prokolpo (PUP).  MCC’s agricultural experts in Bangladesh train GUP and PUP staff on these techniques, known as Integrated Crop Management, which also include making compost that repairs and builds soil health.

MCC support for development projects like this is based in its faith, says Gregory Vanderbilt, representative for MCC in Bangladesh. “Grounded in the unconditional love for God and for our neighbors, our faith motivates us to support development projects that accompany justice, equity and peace towards shalom—wholeness in people and our world,” he says.

Growing vegetables without pesticides

PUP and GUP offer courtyard training sessions and grow demonstration plots, called technology hubs, where farmers can see the techniques in action and learn how to use them. By example, farmers then show their neighbors that, despite some challenges, they can make a living growing safe vegetables.

“I observe that pesticides means … you are destroying everything,” says farmer Abdul Mojid, who knows of three people who collapsed while spraying pesticides. “I know that without pesticides, I am able to produce the crops. That’s why I stopped using the pesticides.”

His fields, which are near the processing center, are not immune to bugs who want to munch on his crops. In his gourd fields, he has blue, white and orange bottles called sticky traps. The colors lure pests to the trap where they get stuck on the used motor oil that Mojid applied to the outside of the bottle. He also uses pheromone-infused bait that attracts male fruit flies into a clear bottle where they fall into the soapy water on the bottom and die.

Abdul Mojid (72) harvests pesticide-free pointed gourd on his farm which is part of a project initiative for environment-friendly agriculture implemented by GUP, funded by MCC. Bogura, Bangladesh.

Cost saving is an important advantage of farming without chemicals, says Arefur Rahaman, MCC food security and livelihoods coordinator who researched insects for his master’s degree. For 33 decimals (1/3 acre) of land, Mojid would spend 25,000-30,000 taka (US$211- $254) a year on pesticides, but to buy pheromone and sticky traps, he spends only 5,000 taka (US $42) a year. The cost savings make up for any losses farmers experience if vegetables do experience pest damage.

Farming without pesticides works best when multiple farmers in the same community use it, Rahaman says. If one field uses pesticides and its neighbor does not, pests will converge on the unprotected field. However, if everyone is avoiding pesticides, the overall number of harmful insects will decrease over time and the useful insects will rebound.

“One little ladybird beetle (ladybug) can consume up to 70-80 aphids in a day,” Rahaman says.

Mojid also improves the health of his soil by making compost, a process that takes six to eight weeks. His adult daughter makes vermicompost by feeding manure to worms, which transform it into beneficial fertilizer. He makes tricho-compost, a mixture of seven readily available, natural ingredients plus Trichoderma, a fungus that controls soil-borne fungal diseases.

“When I started to produce tricho-compost,” Mojid says, “I observed that this kind of compost is helping to increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.”

The plants also produce longer than they did before using the compost. Mojid may still add some chemical fertilizer, but only after doing a soil test to see exactly what is needed, another practice MCC and GUP emphasize.

Marketing challenges

Although farmers report a yield similar to what they would get with pesticides, marketing is a challenge because many customers don’t understand the value of safe vegetables. With MCC support, both organizations are trying different marketing approaches and carrying out community education projects to raise awareness of the health benefits.

Beauty Khatun works In the processing centre of GUP. Vegetables brought by the farmers go through several processes before sending them to the selling points.

At the processing center, which is run by GUP, Hossain says he gets paid a few more taka per kilo than he would get by selling at the regular market. The staff take care of cleaning, packaging and labeling vegetables, getting them ready to take to stores in Bogura.

The customer base that is willing to pay more for pesticide-free food tends to be educated and financially stable, says Rahaman, so GUP looks for stores that serve this demographic. So far, they have fresh vegetable displays set up in four stores that sell food and household supplies.

“I think this quality is so good, and the price is reasonable for me,” says Abu Talha Enam, a young man who comes to buy cucumbers at the local Touch and Take store about three times each week. He works out at a gym, he says, so he also buys healthy vegetables.

Stores are preferable to outdoor markets where many farmers bring their produce because most wholesalers and retail customers care more about how the produce looks than its health benefits, says Alam. When the vegetables appear side by side, vegetables produced without pesticides tend to look less shiny and big as those grown with pesticides and hormones. It is a hindrance that MCC staff are addressing.

Customers buy pesticide-free vegetables from Md Ainur Islam (50), at a stand set up on the ground floor of a Bogura apartment building on Friday mornings.

Pop-up street market stands are PUP’s strategy of choice. Dr. Shamsuddin, who uses one name, says he has seen the negative health effects of pesticides in his patients, allowed PUP to start a market stand in his Bogura apartment building on Friday mornings. He advised his patients to switch to pesticide-free food and is encouraging his colleagues to promote safe foods, too.

Customer Rini Islam says she prefers to buy safe vegetables, even if the ones at market look better on the outside. “It is helpful for our health,” she says. “In comparison to the market, these vegetables are tasty and fresh.”

To encourage more customers to think like Rini Islam, GUP and PUP hold community festivals and post billboards, among other activities, to teach the community about the value of safe agricultural produce. Both organizations, which also experiment with online marketing, know they need more public education and more sales outlets if farmers are to realize increased profit for their produce.

In the super shop Touch & Take, customer Md Humayun Sarkar buys vegetables which are produced by GUP farmers. The vegetables are produced with the motto of environment-friendly agriculture, without harmful chemicals and fertilizers, implemented by GUP, and funded by MCC. Bogura, Bangladesh.

Mojid says he will continue farming without pesticides because of the long-term benefits. “Maybe it can give you more money sometimes,” he says. “Usually, I don’t care about the money. I only care about the environment and health.”

To learn more, listen as Jahangir Alam, MCC program officer in Bangladesh, and Christy Kauffman, MCC U.S. multimedia producer, walk through a farmer’s field and local processing center together on Relief, Development and Podcast. The podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts.

Related videos, “Jesmin’s safe garden” and “Safe vegetable techniques,” are available on MCC’s YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/mccorg.

Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news coordinator.

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